Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is not often left speechless.
But Saturday night at the Wynn Las Vegas, the retiring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver was surprised with the announcement of a $1.8 million donation in his name to the EB Research Partnership, a global non-profit organization dedicated to curing Epidermolysis Bullosa; a serious skin disorder. The announcement came following a surprise appearance by Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, a friend of Stewart’s and a leading proponent of the EB Research Partnership.
The announcement came from Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, who joined NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton on stage, and brought both Stewart and Vedder close to tears.
The motorsports industry originally planned to raise $1.4 million for the cause, corresponding to Stewart's iconic No. 14 car number. But a herculean effort led by Stewart’s longtime business manager, Eddie Jarvis, soon surpassed the $1.4 million goal by a longshot, as individuals and corporations stepped forward to express their affection and admiration for one of NASCAR’s greatest champions.
“I was totally blown away and caught off guard,” said an emotional Stewart afterward. “I really don’t know what to say, to be honest with you.”
“This is un(effing) believable,” said a stunned Vedder, adding, "Are we on television? I'll pay the fine."
The honor was fitting for Stewart, whose charitable foundation has contributed more than $6.5 million over the years to organizations benefitting three of his favorite causes; children, animals and injured racers. In addition to those cash contributions, Stewart meets with literally dozens of handicapped and terminally ill children each season, while steadfastly refusing any publicity or credit for his efforts.
"Tony wanted to have a very low-key sendoff during his final NASCAR season,” said Helton. “He was pretty emphatic about it. (But we) as an industry felt it was important to honor him. People know how passionate he is about motorsports, but he's equally passionate about helping others. On behalf of the entire motorsports industry, we felt this collective donation in Tony's name was a fitting tribute to all that he's accomplished during his NASCAR career."
|Eddie Vedder and Tony Stewart|
It was all that, and more.
"The pain these kids (with EB) face is constant, and yet they still find ways to stay upbeat," said Stewart Saturday night. "You quickly realize that your idea of a bad day is nothing. It puts your life and the things you take for granted in perspective. But it also makes you mad, because this is a devastating disorder that no one should have to endure. Yet it exists, and after seeing it, you want to do anything you can to make it go away."
EB sufferers lack proteins that bind their skin together, resulting in painful wounds that never heal, the fusing of fingers and toes, along with blisters, intense pain and disfigurement. The condition can also cause blisters in the eyes, mouth, esophagus. The condition affects one in every 50,000 births -- roughly 25-30,000 people in the United States alone – and has no known cure.
“When I first heard about it, it was quite hard to grasp the intensity of the condition,” said Vedder. “It’s about the most insane skin disorder you could imagine. It is diabolical. It’s very hard to describe until you meet the young folks with it, and they make you realize how much you take for granted. These are some of the strongest, coolest, most admirable people on the face of the Earth.”
Those words – strong, cool and admirable – apply equally to Tony Stewart, and it was nice to see him honored in his final trip to the champion’s stage as a driver.